Published: April 2012

K2 Climb

Photo: K2, the Savage Mountain


Danger and desire on the Savage Mountain

By Chip Brown
Photograph by Tommy Heinrich

Tomorrow Is Our Day

Here at last was a morning that gave them hope: Monday, August 22, Camp IV, 7,950 meters. The gales were gone, the snow had quit, the sky ran blue and cloudless to the black edge of space.

For most of July and half of August the six members of the International 2011 K2 North Pillar Expedition had been shuttling up and down the seldom attempted North Ridge of the world’s second highest peak. Theirs was the only party on the remote Chinese side of K2, the Karakoram Range giant that rises 8,611 meters (28,251 feet) on the China-Pakistan border. The mountaineers were climbing the ridge (as it is commonly referred to, even though “ridge” understates the steepness of the terrain) without bottled oxygen or high-altitude porters.

What the team lacked in numbers it made up for in experience. The two climbers from Kazakhstan—Maxut Zhumayev, 34, and Vassiliy Pivtsov, 36—were making their sixth and seventh attempts to summit K2, respectively. Dariusz Załuski, a 52-year-old Polish videographer, was a veteran of three attempts. Tommy Heinrich, a 49-year-old photographer from Argentina, had two K2 expeditions on his résumé but had also failed to summit.

Most notable was Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a 40-year-old, dark-haired former nurse from Austria who was on her fourth trip to K2. If she succeeded this time, she would become the first woman in history to climb without supplemental oxygen all 14 of the world’s peaks that exceed the mystique-endowed height of 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). She was leading the expedition with her husband, Ralf Dujmovits, 49, who had already climbed all of the 8,000-meter peaks (all but one without bottled oxygen) and was the foremost high-altitude mountaineer in Germany. He had reached the top of K2 from the Pakistani side on his first try, in July 1994.

It had taken 42 days for the six climbers to establish several camps connected by thousands of feet of rope fixed across a route that included everything from vertical rock and ice to avalanche-raked slopes of chest-deep snow. They pushed themselves to break trail in heavy snow, haul gear, shovel out campsites, pitch tents, melt ice. Many times they relinquished their gains on the mountain, going down to sleep at the lower elevation of Advanced Base Camp, at 4,650 meters on the K2 North Glacier.

On August 16 they set out on what would be their first and only real chance for the summit. The snow that had been falling for much of the summer had started again. They reached Camp I, at the foot of the ridge, that day; avalanches roared and more than a foot of snow fell overnight. They waited there for a day, hoping the snow on the slopes above would come down before they continued their ascent.

On August 18 at 5:10 a.m. they decided to push ahead to Camp II. Every extra ounce was a burden; to save weight, Gerlinde left her journal in the tent. Two avalanches had already swept over their route up a long gully. Around 6:30 a.m. Ralf stopped. So precarious were the snow conditions he could no longer ignore his gut feelings.

“Gerlinde, I am going back,” he said.

Since the couple had been climbing together they had made a pact that neither would stand in the other’s way if one wanted to continue and the other did not. Barring injury or ill health, they were responsible for themselves. On Nepal’s Lhotse in 2006—just one of several examples—Gerlinde had climbed on alone for 20 minutes after Ralf had been deterred by fresh snow over the blue ice of the summit couloir, before she too turned back. She was, as he acknowledged, still brimming with wagnis—a German word meaning “daring.” Having never been to the top of K2, she was willing to take risks that Ralf, who had, was not. She coped with fear differently too. Where he relished how the sensation of fear in his stomach revealed the margins of his ability and compelled him to pay attention, Gerlinde strove to block out fear with the quiet calm that possessed her when she was absorbed in what she had to do. If she kept herself completely focused on the task at hand, she didn’t feel afraid.

But now, in the gully above Camp I, despite their agreement, despite knowing the delay might cost her a chance to reach the summit, Ralf begged his wife to come down with him. His composure deserted him. “Ralf was yelling that the route is very, very avalanche prone. He was shouting desperately,” Maxut said later in a video on his website, “and Gerlinde shouted in return that now is the moment when the fate of the climb will be decided. If we turn around today, on the 18th, we are not making the period of good weather.”

“I was really afraid I would never see her again,” Ralf explained later.

In what was her most anguished moment of the climb so far, Gerlinde watched as Ralf distributed his group gear to the rest of the team and descended into the mist. And then, in what may be the premier example of her tenacity and will, she returned to the task at hand. “It’s not that I was indifferent to the risk,” she said afterward. “But my gut feeling was good.”

As Ralf had feared, the snow on the slope began to rip loose, three small slides in succession set off by Maxut, Vassiliy, and Gerlinde, who were out front breaking trail. The biggest hit Tommy, climbing almost 200 feet below; it knocked him upside down and stuffed his nose and mouth. Only the fixed rope, taut as a cello string, kept him from being flushed off the mountain. He was able to dig himself out, but the slide had refilled the broken trail, and eventually he too turned back.

So now they were four: Gerlinde, Vassiliy, Maxut, and Dariusz. The job of breaking trail was Sisyphean—worse really, because they couldn’t pretend they hadn’t volunteered for the punishment. Sweep the snow aside, crack the crust with your knee, compact what’s underneath, step up, slip back. Repeat and repeat and repeat. After 11 hours they set up a bivouac at Shoulder Depot Camp, below Camp II, and spent a miserable night crammed into a two-person tent. The following day they negotiated the most difficult sections of the ridge and reached Camp II, at 6,600 meters, where they changed into down suits. On Saturday, August 20, they slogged on to Camp III, arriving in the afternoon, exhausted, chilled to the bone. They drank coffee with honey and warmed their hands and feet over their gas stoves. All night the hoarfrosted tent walls snapped and shuddered in the wind.

They had been promised better weather by a satellite-phone forecast Ralf passed along over the radio from Advanced Base Camp. The break finally arrived on Sunday, August 21, lifting everyone’s spirits and helping to carry the team to Camp IV. They were now at nearly 8,000 meters, in the so-called death zone, where the body is unable to acclimatize to the oxygen-depleted air, cognition becomes impaired, and the simplest tasks can take forever. They spent the afternoon sharpening their crampons and melting snow. Toward evening they stood outside their tents, pitched in a notch of rock above an appalling void that plunged nearly two miles to the glacier below. Two thousand feet above lay the glistening white mantle of the summit, untouched since 2008, when 11 climbers died in one of the deadliest mountaineering episodes in the history of K2.

“There was a moment when we all started to get nervous, in a good way,” Gerlinde said later. “We touched each other’s hands and looked at each other in the eyes and said, ‘OK, tomorrow is our day.’”

A Passion for Climbing

K2 has a singular place in high-altitude mountaineering. Though 784 feet lower than Mount Everest, it has long been known as the mountaineer’s mountain. The sharp triangle of its silhouette and height above the surrounding terrain not only define the archetypal image of a mountain but, as a practical matter, also make K2 far more difficult and dangerous to climb. As of 2010 Everest had been summited 5,104 times; K2, just 302. Roughly one K2 climber has died for every four who’ve succeeded.
After the first attempts by British and Italian climbing teams in the early 1900s, American parties tackled K2 in 1938, 1939, and 1953. Charles Houston and Robert Bates titled their account of their 1953 expedition K2: The Savage Mountain. The characterization has been invoked so often over the years you’d think the moods of K2 reflected some personal antipathy toward mountaineers petitioning for its favor rather than the random dynamics of the physical world. In 1954 K2 was finally “conquered” by a large Italian expedition that put two men on the top via the now standard summit route on the Pakistani side of the mountain.

As for Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the mountaineer’s mountain had made an indelible impression on her when she first glimpsed it from nearby Broad Peak in 1994 at age 23. “I was fascinated by its shape,” she said, “but I didn’t dare imagine myself ever climbing on it.”

Gerlinde, the fifth of six children, grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Spital am Pyhrn, a mountain village of about 2,200 people in central Austria. Her father, Manfred, worked in the local quarries; her mother, Rosamaria, was a cook in a youth hostel. Gerlinde idolized her big sister, Brigitte, ten years her senior. She was mad for sports: swimming, biking, skiing. There wasn’t much money in the house; Gerlinde didn’t see a movie in the cinema until she was 17.

She attended a school for sports, including ski training, where she discovered she was a good skier but not topflight. More upsetting was when supposedly close friends expressed resentment if she happened to do better in a race. The experience of early school rivalries soured her on competition and shaped her later reluctance to view herself as a contestant vying for records against other female mountaineers.

It was at church, not school, that her passion for climbing was awakened. In a country where most major mountains have crosses on top, it shouldn’t be surprising that Erich Tischler, the local Catholic priest, wore climbing knickers under his cassock and, if the weather was good, would shorten his Sunday sermon to hasten his flock to the hills. Gerlinde served as an altar girl, attending Mass with her boots in her rucksack. Father Tischler led her on her first hike, at age seven, and on her first technical roped ascent, of Sturzhahn Mountain when she was 13.

After her parents’ marriage ended in divorce in 1985, her relationship with her mother was strained. Gerlinde, then 14, moved out. She lived with her sister Brigitte and eventually followed her into the nursing profession. By 20 Gerlinde had a job at a hospital in Rottenmann, a small town about 15 miles from Spital am Pyhrn. She was happy, near her family, but independent. On weekends she skipped off to the local alps to climb. The appetite for adventure, which had always set her apart from her family, led her to the Karakoram Range in 1994. On Broad Peak in Pakistan she abandoned her bid for the summit as the weather worsened, then changed her mind, and finally reached the forepeak, some 20 meters lower than the 8,051-meter summit, which lay at the far end of a long ridge. (She would return to summit in 2007.) She was elated but, having seen the body of a climber who’d died on the mountain, was also perplexed. “It cannot be that happiness, joy, and death are so closely linked together,” she wrote in her journal.

Back home, Gerlinde saved money and cobbled together vacation days for trekking and climbing trips to Pakistan, China, Nepal, Peru. After her first expedition her father said, “OK, one is enough. You don’t have to do any more.” After the second he said, “Now you have two. That’s enough.”

“His wish was to see me get married and have a family,” Gerlinde recalls. But she had known in her early 20s that children were not in her cards. She showed her father pictures and tried to explain the infusion of energy and happiness she felt in the mountains. There were risks of course, but nursing had taught her that death was part of life. And for perspective, she had only to look at the losses faced by Brigitte, who had already buried three husbands. Bad things could happen anytime, anywhere.

In 1998 Gerlinde climbed Cho Oyu, near the Nepal-China border, her first true 8,000-meter summit. Four years later, in 2002, she reached her third 8,000-meter summit, the top of 8,163-meter Manaslu in Nepal. In base camp she met Ralf Dujmovits, then 40 and at the peak of his celebrity, having starred in a live televised ascent of the north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps that was watched by millions of people. They got along like a pair of swans and broke trail together.

For more than 20 years women had been making inroads in the male domain of high-altitude mountaineering but were still frequently treated with condescension. In 2003, still acclimatized by an unsuccessful attempt on Kanchenjunga, Gerlinde flew to Pakistan to try the Diamir Face of the 8,126-meter Nanga Parbat. Above Camp II she found herself breaking trail in a single file with six male climbers from Kazakhstan and one from Spain. Her presence was not mentioned when the leader reported on the radio that seven climbers were heading up to Camp III. When she worked her way to the front of the line to take her turn breaking trail, she was nudged aside. Misguided chivalry? Arrogant disdain for her abilities? She wasn’t sure but went politely to the back of the line. When she had worked her way to the front again and one of the male climbers tried to wave her away a second time, she’d had enough. She took off, bulldozing her way up the unbroken slope without stopping. She plowed the path all the way to Camp III. The gob-smacked climbers in her wake nicknamed her “Cinderella Caterpillar” for the trail-breaking machine that had appeared in their midst.

She was the first Austrian woman to summit Nanga Parbat, the mountain known for the first ascent by the legendary Austrian climber Hermann Buhl in 1953. Her success on the 50th anniversary of Buhl’s audacious feat attracted notice in climbing magazines and gave her the impetus to make a profession out of her passion. Over the next two years she added Annapurna I, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, and Xixabangma Feng to her résumé. She now had climbed 8 of the 14 highest peaks. In January 2006 the German magazine Der Spiegel dubbed her “queen of the death zone.” The image of a haughty monarch reigning over life and death had little to do with the actual character of a sensitive, unselfish woman (in base camp on K2 Gerlinde tried to see if a pair of sunglasses would relieve the distress of a snow-blind sheep), but it did wonders for her lectures ticket sales, impressed sponsors, and secured her career as a professional mountaineer.

That spring of 2006, after she too had turned back on Lhotse, she found Ralf waiting in their camp at 7,250 meters. It was an unusually warm night; as they lay in their sleeping bags outside the tent under the stars with a bed of clouds blanketing the earth below and bolts of distant lightning blazing on the face of Everest, Ralf asked Gerlinde to marry him.

“It was not your typical first three months of marriage,” Gerlinde says. The newlyweds spent the summer attempting various summits, together and separately. In May 2007, while Ralf guided an expedition to Manaslu, Gerlinde arranged to climb 8,167-meter Dhaulagiri I. She carefully placed her tent well left of the area where an avalanche had broken the neck of the famous female French mountaineer Chantal Mauduit in 1998. Close by were a pair of tents occupied by three Spanish climbers, who had invited Gerlinde in for coffee. At 9 a.m. on May 13, waiting for the winds to subside so she could start for Camp III, Gerlinde was lying in her tent, fully dressed except for her boots. There was a roar, and then a massive rush of snow devoured the camp, bowling her tent a hundred feet down the slope to the edge of a precipice.

“I couldn’t tell if I was up or down,” she says. “My feet were completely packed in, but I could move my arms a little bit. I tried to get to the little knife I keep on my harness. I was worried the snow would smother me. I was able to cut through the wall of the tent with my knife. There was about 30 centimeters [a foot] of loose snow on top of it, and I punched my hand out. After about an hour I was able to get out of the tent. I had no shoes, no sunglasses.”

She looked for the tents of her Spanish friends. One climber’s solo tent was still intact, the other, with two climbers, was gone. Frantically she began to dig. An hour later, six feet down, she found it: Santiago Sagaste and Ricardo Valencia were inside, dead. All desire to do anything on Dhaulagiri but get down was gone. Later she poured out her feelings to Ralf. Why didn’t she notice that the weather had turned ominously warm? Why did she ignore the sign when the turquoise bracelet that was her good luck charm broke the day before?

Despite the brush with oblivion, she returned to Dhaulagiri the next year and summited it.

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